Voices from the Basement

filenes_basement.jpgNo attraction in Boston resonates with tourists and locals quite like the original Filene’s Basement. In late 2008, just in time to celebrate its centennial, a documentary called Voices from the Basement will be released. Michael Bavaro, the filmmaker behind Rex Trailer’s Boomtown, and Susan Edbril, a psychologist whose grandmother worked at Filene’s Basement for more than thirty years, spoke to us about their film and ways to hide merchandise for Automatic Markdown that actually work.

Whose idea was Voices from the Basement?
Sue Edbril: My grandmother worked at Filene’s Basement for more than 30 years, and growing up I heard stories about this place where people took care of one another. Salespeople formed a tight bond, so much so that if someone’s cousin died, everyone would go to the wake after work. This place was more like a home and less a place to work, which doesn’t happen now.

How did you two pair up for this project?
Michael Bavaro: I did the film about Rex Trailer in 2005, and Sue saw that movie and realized I could help her get this project together. They’re kind of similar projects– everyone had a Rex story, and everyone has a Filene’s story.
Sue: I got in touch with Rex, who put me in contact with Michael. We complement each other very well, since he sees things through the eyes of a filmmaker while I see things as a psychologist.

Has Filene’s Basement been helpful with your project?
Sue: Absolutely. Pat Boudrot, Filene’s public relations manager, has been instrumental from the beginning and has provided us with lists of employees to talk to.
Michael: They’ve also let us shoot in the Basement as much as we want and opened up their archives to us. We’re not making a controversial film, so it only benefits them.

You’ve interviewed a lot of former Basement employees, many of whom worked at there years ago. How do they feel about the redevelopment of the Downtown Crossing store?
Sue: It’s sad for them. It was their home. These people, who are in their eighties now, are still in touch with people they worked with in the 1940s. They know that things will change, but it’s a very different place from when they worked there.
Michael: We interviewed a lot of people before the renovations were announced, so they’d probably have different things to say now.

The Automatic Markdown is legendary, and shoppers go to amazing lengths to hide a good find until the price drops. Did you hear any strategies that worked in your interviews?
Michael: The workers were savvy to a lot of the tricks, so customers had to think of really good places. One shopper hid some shoes in the ceramics department. But if you had a good relationship with a salesperson and they knew your hiding places, they’d let things slide.
Sue: Many of the women would hide stuff in the men’s side, particularly in the sleeve of a man’s suit, and that usually worked. Another person stuffed something inside a high patent leather boot in the ’60s.

Sue, you’re a psychologist. What do you find in the psyche of a bargain hunter?
Sue: There are different kinds of bargain hunters. Filene’s is the only place in the world where you had to leave your social status at the door. You could be a Boston Brahmin or a waitress from Dorchester and you had access to the same quality goods.
What fascinates me is that Filene’s was a different place for men than for women. The men’s side was very contained and orderly, with salespeople calling men up and saying “We have a suit, come in.” The women’s side was disorganized, with women fighting for what they wanted and trying things on in the aisles. [The dressing room was added in 1991.]

What are the challenges of making a documentary like this?
Michael: It’s like an archeological dig. We interviewed a 102-year-old woman who remembers going to Filene’s Basement as a child and buying two pairs of shoes for a dollar, so we’re trying to match the stories with visuals. In the era of camera phones, it’s easy to forget that not everything was recorded back then. A silent romantic comedy was shot in the Basement in 1921, and we’re trying to find that.

When and where will Voices from the Basement be released?
Michael: We’re currently still shooting, and we’ll start editing in the fall. We’ll ask around the local TV stations and cable giants, and it will probably air sometime in 2008. We think this is a topic that reaches far beyond Boston, so we think a cable channel might be interested.
Sue: When the movie is released, I’m going to host a big event and the proceeds will go to the Corwin-Russell School, a school for students with Asperger’s and other conditions that require non-mainstream learning.

If you have any stories you’d like to share with the filmmakers, you can contact them at filenemovie@aol.com.